The last two weeks of December are among my very favorite of the year because it is a natural time for turning inward, taking stock, envisioning the future and so on.
I don't know about you, but I've spent many a late December making long lists of goals to achieve (Write more! TV less!) and personal qualities to cultivate (More patient! Less self-centered!). None of my goals were bad or wrong, and my vision of the kind of person I wanted to be was someone good and kind. But at the end of each year, I always seemed to have the same resolutions so obviously just writing them down and wishing really, really hard for them to come true wasn't getting it. It also did not seem helpful to imagine/visualize the outcomes I desired. Doing so just seemed to make me more anxious. It seemed so fake.
The goals themselves were not the problem, it was the way I set about accomplishing them. What to do? In pondering all of this (while also being a Buddhist teacher), I've begun approaching my end-of-the-year musings in a different way, one that enables me to hold my aspirations with a sense of confidence and ease, in part because it is simply more effective and in part because this new approach helps me relax with what I desire rather than become consumed by it.
So I have two suggestions for making new year's resolutions in such a way that they become a part of your spiritual practice rather than an exercise in wishful thinking and self-aggression.
The first is to stop making lists of hoped-for accomplishments.
Instead of writing down "exercise more" (always, always on my list) or "become enlightened" (ditto), I try to spend some time in these last weeks of the year feeling what I wish to become.
For example, one thing I always long for is more energy, greater vitality. But rather than hoping to somehow become that person in the future, I experiment with becoming that person right now by becoming her on the inside -- for a moment. I don't have to change anything about my self or my life to do this.
For example, if I ask you right now to flash on what it would feel like to have all the energy in the world, you can do that, right? Just flash. Don't try to hold on. Don't try to build a story about how to get that way or why you can never be that way -- just be that way. For a second. Then let go.
This is a great start.
Now, as you go about your day, when you notice someone or something that embodies the energy you desire, feel it too. Communicate with it. Take it in. You may have caught a glimpse of gymnastics on TV, noticed a fresh bloom on a houseplant or eaten a just-ripe Granny Smith apple -- these are all things that to me would conjure the quality of energy I seek. In such moments, I could take into myself the grace and strength of the gymnast, the spurt of a blossom or the sharpness of an apple. Again, it all happens in a flash.
Then, most important: let go. Stop thinking about it until it again naturally arises in your environment. In this way, rather than writing down an aspiration, we create an ongoing relationship to it by attuning to the presence of what we seek in our environment. We connect with its energy on the spot and build a non-conceptual bridge to our destination.
Try it. Attune. Notice. Absorb. Let go. For me, this is way better than incessantly talking to myself in my own head about who I wish I was.
The second possibility for giving your resolutions power and possibility is to expand them to include others.
Something wonderful and important happens when we expand the field of our yearning to include others. When we wish for our own happiness, we could also wish for the happiness of those we love, of strangers and even, get ready for it, of our enemies. Hey, if everyone could find peace, love and safety (after all, this is what motivates ALL of us), we would live in a thoroughly blessed world.
So with the example of wanting to possess more energy, you could find a way to tack on the wish that all beings that long for more energy could also find it. That together, somehow, all the beings who wish for greater vitality, whether young or old, seen or unseen, human or animal, could find it. Expand your wish and remember: "all beings" includes you. (I often forget that.)
It is great to spend time rousing aspirations for our lives. When we also rouse aspirations for others, the power of our wish is multiplied. The exercise gains a transcendent dimension. And hey, let's face it, when it comes to making new year's resolutions, we could all use a bit of transcendent support!
There is special mojo in these transitional weeks in late December and if you choose to self-reflect during this time, I think you'll find it to be extra powerful.
And of course, a meditation practice will provide tremendous support. It teaches you how to place your attention where you choose and at the same time somehow expands your heart beyond what you thought possible until, quite naturally, you find there is space for all beings.
If you want to give meditation practice a try, please sign up for The Open Heart Project to receive meditation instruction and support via email. Free.